Rev. Douglas Taylor
The part that really caught my attention was the idea that evolution is not a meaningless, blind process driven by chance and random happenstance. Because I was sitting in the room listening for the connections that where promised and that was one of them. The topic was ‘The Marriage of Science and Religion.” The speaker was Michael Dowd. He spoke here last summer. And one of the points of connection he offered around the marriage of science and religion was that evolution is not a meaningless, blind process driven by chance and random happenstance; which flies in the face of our conventional understanding of evolution.
Religion is the arena of meaning and the purposefulness of existence. Religion offers us why while science sticks to the realm of how. Right? Science asking questions of what and how, religion asking questions of why and what for; together they lead us into deeper understanding of nature and human nature. Most of the work of bringing them together lies in not confusing them. Don’t look to religion to find out how old the earth is or how to cure disease. Don’t ask science to explain suffering or hope or the mystery of existence. Science and religion are two tools for discovering truth. But they are used for different kinds of truth. If you want to cut a piece of wood, the tool you choose should not be a fishing net. If you want to write a love letter, don’t use a hammer. Different tools accomplish different tasks. Science and religion are two tools for discovering truth, best not mix them up. Right?
So, when someone comes along suggesting we not exactly mix them up so much as to mix them together, well it peaks the interest.
The part that really caught my attention, as I said, was this notion of directionality – that evolution holds an implication of purpose. All along, Darwin and other scientists have claimed evolution rests on random chance of mutation to make the next step. Science offered no concept that the change that has occurred through the random mutation could be considered progressive, that there is a direction. It has always been religion that says life is the way it is on purpose and is moving forward according to plan. God had this plan and created the tongue of the anteater to fit down the ant hill, the beak of the hummingbird to fit into the depths of the flower, the slight S curve of the human spine to facilitate an upright position, the hollow bones of a bird to aid in flight. It’s all part of the plan, part of the design. And then along comes Darwin debunking ‘design.’
His theory of Natural Selection describes the mechanism for adaptation among species. Darwin’s grand contribution to science and the theory of evolution is the articulation of the process of natural selection. And what are selected are mutations that happen randomly; by definition, mutations are accidents. Life evolves by accident, evolutionary science tells us. Yet religion offers a plan for life. Choose between the two, you can’t have both. Either it is by plan as Religion tells us, or by happenstance as science offers. Choose.
Into this milieu comes the foray of Michael Dowd and others who choose a third path. In his recent book Thank God for Evolution, Dowd writes this about randomness vs. directionality:
“Stephen Jay Gould popularized an understanding of evolution that focused on the roll of randomness and chance. “Rewind the tape” of evolution, he would say, and imagine the whole process unfolding from the start once again: everything would be different. At one level, this interpretation is indisputably true: the species would surely be different: there would be no white oak, no gray whale, no emu. But at another level, the level that matters most to me and surely many others, the central issue is whether there would be eyes to see, whether there would be trees reaching into the sky, whether there would be creatures scampering on land, flying through the air, and perhaps swimming in the sea but needing to surface for air. We wonder, too, whether there would be a form like us, who would come to know and celebrate the 14-billion-year story of the Universe. I am convinced that the best answer is an unqualified Yes!”
(Michael Dowd, Thank God for Evolution p 31)
I’ll be specific with an example Dowd offers against the idea that evolution is a meaningless, blind process driven by chance and random happenstance. If you have ever followed the debates against the randomness of evolution by the creationists and the proponents of Intelligent Design you will be aware of the argument of Irreducible Complexity. Look at the eye, they say, or the wing. For the eye or wing to evolve by a random series of mutations is neigh on inconceivable. It’s mindboggling. For there to be a workable eye or wing, there must be some hundred or so mutations occurring all at once, half an eye doesn’t work. Half a wing is less than helpful, it is a dramatic hindrance. It must be the whole wing. And, then for the Natural Selection portion of it to work, there also has to be another member of the species of the opposite sex who has the same hundred or so mutations occurring simultaneously; and then these two need to find one another and mate for the mutation to be naturally selected. It is something like the monkey’s typing scenario. Yes, eventually – given enough time – a thousand monkeys will randomly type out a Shakespeare play, but one computation has the probability at one in a billion billion years. And if the Big Bang theory of the Universe is even remotely correct, the time span we’re talking about for quote “all of time” is a mere 14 billion years, and less than 4 billion for quote “life as we know it.”
And yet we have eyes. We have eyes like a squid’s, but our eyes are very different from an insect’s eyes which are more like those of a lobster’s. And the pinhole eye of a nautilus and the eye of the snail are each wildly distinct from our eyes. And yet, the universe has again and again produced simple photoreceptors capable of distinguishing between light and dark, and more complex organs able to sense shape, color, and texture. Again and again: eyes. Not once, but at least a dozen different times the evolutionary leap of eyes has happened. As Dowd says, “Surely the Universe was determined to see itself!” (p31)
So, what exactly is being suggested here? That the Intelligent Design people re scientifically right? Is Dowd suggesting that he and other noted scientists, theorists, biologists, and philosophers like John Stewart, Richard Dawkins, E. O. Wilson, Simon Conway Morris, David Sloan Wilson, and Ken Wilber, are conceding the debate to the Intelligent Design folks. No. Instead they are acknowledging compelling evidence that evolution has something of a trajectory. Something other than chance is at play. But saying that ‘chance’ does not explain everything is a far cry from saying that the description of events in Genesis will fill in all the blanks. No, what is being suggested is not a concession to the Creationists. But there is a clear claim that evolution is not as random as was once believed. There is a pattern or series of patterns that suggest a direction, a general trajectory. No one is claiming that the pattern is pure progress. It has been said that evolution meanders more than it progresses. Progress carries the tone that every step is a step forward, an improvement. But over the long haul there are clear indications of increased differentiation and depth, greater complexity and integration.
Ken Wilber writes, in A Brief History of Everything, “Evolution has a direction, yes, a principle of order out of chaos, as it is commonly phrased. In other words, a drive toward greater depth.” (p36) Progressive evolution, as Wilber is advocating here, is an idea that takes Darwin’s theories to the next, more complicated and creative level. Not all evolutionary scientists support this idea. This notion of ‘progressive evolution’ is in open debate among scientists today. It has been said that Darwin’s great contribution was not the idea of evolution so much to identify the process by which evolution happens: natural selection. This week marks the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth. It is a fitting occasion to recognize his monumental impact on our understanding of life. Darwin demonstrated that from this process, natural selection, the natural and inevitable result was evolution. Centuries before Darwin, people saw patterns, relationships that suggested something like evolution. An analogy that helps clarify this is from John Stewarts’s book Evolution’s Arrow in which he writes (p9) “Like patterns of stars in the night sky that resemble shapes significant to humans, the consistencies could be dismissed as the product of creative imagination, not the result of real, causal relationships.” But it was Darwin who supplied the mechanism. Before Darwin, people noticed the patterns and wondered. Now we see the same patterns and recognize the causal relationship of common ancestry and natural selection. Thus the analogous question arises today: what would be the mechanism for the pattern that appears to be an evolutionary trajectory?
If evolution has a drive for greater complexity and creativity, depth and differentiation, then what is that drive? Well, it is something as simple as Natural Selection. It is Cooperation. Evolution organized molecules into cells and cells into organisms and organisms into societies. The model is exemplified by a single cell bacteria merging with another single cell bacteria to form the first Eukaryotic cells. This evolutionary innovation of cooperation opened the door for all multi-cellular organisms. Science says “cooperate!” But isn’t that religion’s line? “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” or to paraphrase: ‘help one another.’
The next question would have to be ‘why?’ Why would any single organism cooperate with another? Well, for religion, the reason is because the book says so, or better, because my heart knows it is the right thing to do. Neither of those answers will serve for science though. So, scientifically, why would any single, Self-interested organism cooperate with another? Stewart tackles that question early in his book.
“How can evolution progress by exploiting these benefits of cooperation when, as Richard Dawkins and others have shown so clearly (in books like The Selfish Gene), evolution favors organisms that put their own selfish interests above all else? We will see that there is a solution to this apparent paradox: cooperation can flourish without organisms giving up their self-interest. Organisms can be organized so that beneficial cooperation is also consistent with their self-interests. When organisms are organized in this way, it is in their self-interest to be cooperative.” (Stewart, John Evolutions Arrow p10)
Cooperation is the root of the argument for the trajectory of evolution. Organisms who cooperate will out-compete those who do not! Cooperation is in an organism’s best interest. Evolution moves toward greater cooperation and thus greater depth and complexity, integration and differentiation. Now, from what I can understand, this is not necessarily a happy consensual agreement as we think of ‘cooperation’ today. The general theory of the development of that first Eukaryotic cell includes the notion that the oxygen-related mitochondria was originally a parasite; and similarly, the precursor to the photosynthesis structures in plant cells was originally ingested as food but was thankfully resistant to the digestive juices. (from Dowd, p36) Yet, that cooperation led to the dramatic innovations allowing life to evolve to such depths of creativity and complexity.
And thinking about this beyond the disciple of biology, (in case you are completely lost by all this biology,) the concept of society is rooted in the notion that we can evolve greater complexity when we cooperate. Our modern society is nothing if not a study in increased complexity in terms of technology, economy, politics, relationships, and entertainment. But much of that complexity is a product of societal cooperation: a commitment to the concept of the commons. Indeed one of the strongest religious critiques against society now is the insufficient respect for the potential benefit of cooperation. If our laws would actually punish greed rather than reward it we might find some of our best and brightest working to make the world a better place rather than just getting as big a piece of it as possible for themselves. But our society is far more reliant on cooperation than our news headlines would suggest. I’m guessing every one here has access to a pen. How much did you do independently to get that pen? Aside from the invention and innovation and improvement of design and style over the years, your particular pen was crafted by a machine, quite likely. But who built that machine? Who cleans the pen-making machine? Who packaged your pen and who delivered it to the store where you bought it? Who stood behind the counter and rang up the price of the pen? Who determined what the pen would cost? It’s endless.
And all that cooperation was not in the form of some altruistic effort to get you your pen. At each step the goal was more self-interest than a passionate effort to further the cooperative aspect of human evolution. Consider any aspect of your life. You would not exist if not for cooperation. And we lift up individuals as inventors, heroes, presidents, ministers, scientists, athletes, CEOs as if we’re going to get anywhere by having a single person do something wonderful on behalf of everyone else – when on the grand scale it is quite the opposite: countless numbers do countless little things leading up to a benefit for you as an individual. What would we be if self-interest was the only consideration? But when the self-interest is lined up along side cooperation for the community then all manor of creative and complex possibilities arise.
This easily leads into theological reflection around the nature of the universe and our place in it. Our existence is interconnected with all that is. Scientifically and theologically, we are radically connected to one another. And when we realize this truth and act in accordance with its implications we open ourselves up to the furtherance of not only our own spiritual and personal growth and deepening, we also line ourselves up as one more aspect of creation unfolding into the new day. And that is both a heady and humbling notion: we may be at a point in this evolutionary venture of life where with care and cooperation we can catch a glimpse of where we are headed in the broad view of life unfolding.
In a world without end,
May it be so.